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The future of funerals: natural burial, home vigils, DIY coffins and more

In the final of our 4-part series on the funeral industry, we look at the trends disrupting the status quo.

Funerals part 4 DIY funeral lead
Last updated: 06 December 2019

The shrinking number of religious followers in Australia, some might argue, ought to have dampened the desire for funerals. But funerals are still here, as replete with ritual as ever, if that's what you choose. 

Yet, increasingly, people are turning away from current conventions when it comes to that last farewell. In response, funerals are being reinvented. 

Funeral directors, as their title suggests, aren't meant to hand over control of the funeral. Most see it as their job to run the show, as any good director would. They're certainly not supposed to do what a number of newcomers to the industry do: offer the director's chair to you.

We've looked at some of these newcomers and the emerging ways of going about a funeral. These include attending to a dead body in your own home, making a coffin from scratch, and ordering a cremation online with the ashes delivered back to you by post. Some of these options undermine and challenge the rules and limits imposed on us by the funeral industry, which hinge on the assumption that you need someone to swoop in and take charge of arrangements. 

The case for home vigils

Changing your relationship with death is simple, says Rebecca Lyons, a Tasmania-based end-of-life doula and funeral director making the case for a hands-on approach to funerals. 

Rebecca's advice is plain: get in there and do it yourself – create your own ritual, gather your community, take in the changes to the body of the person you knew and, through it all, absorb the reality of their death. She believes that doing so will reshape the way we experience funerals to something more intuitive than the current formula. 

"We are given a very strict framework on how we interact with death and that process has disempowered people," she says. "And as the costs go up for services and for ceremonies, people are looking for something more."

Funerals part 4 home vigils

Death doulas say that dealing with the dead can be fulfilling. Photo: You n’ Taboo

She encourages mourners to move away from the established funeral system. She will show you how to care for the body at home: keep it cool using ice packs, move it using a sheet pulled underneath, and massage it if it's too stiff to dress.

The notion that dealing with the dead can be more fulfilling than burdensome is old news for Australia's growing number of death doulas.

"I've seen people stand around someone's body and go: what do we do? How do we touch them? How do we move them?" Rebecca says. 

"And by the end of the washing and dressing I'm standing over in the corner where no one needs me… It's just getting over that initial fear."

Building your own coffin

For those who want their coffin to be distinctive, personal and a perfect fit, a custom-made coffin is more likely to hit these marks than the offerings of your average funeral home. 

Kim Ligers is one pioneer of the growing DIY coffin movement. "There's this thing called the Ikea effect where, if you've made something – even if you've just assembled it – you have a greater investment in it," he says.

In July, he launched a course for building "toe pincher"-style coffins in Sydney. With only one student enrolled, there was plenty of room for working through errors and questions. Kim's easygoing demeanour belied the technical precision involved in turning sheets of wood into a specified structure: the constant tape-measuring, the setting of angles with a sliding bevel, the perils of the panel saw.

If you've made something – even if you've just assembled it – you have a greater investment in it

Kim Ligers, DIY coffin instructor

Gesturing towards the edge that joined the two longest planks, Kim told me: "This is called the toe pincher." But it looked roomy down there – the end where the head would rest was narrower. When Kim realised they'd swapped the head and foot pieces, both teacher and student burst out laughing.

Mistakes abound at Australia's first coffin-making club in Ulverstone, Tasmania, too. "But things are fixable, and glue fixes a lot," says its lead volunteer, Lynne Jarvis.

The club is run by Care Beyond Cure, a charity that supports people with life-limiting illness and their carers. One reason people make coffins there is to save money. 

Starting prices for coffins from most funeral homes range between $1000 and $2000, and can cost much more. For coffin-clubbers with life-limiting illness, the only cost is that of supplying their own materials. Everyone else is asked to make a donation of $50 or more.

Funerals part 4 build you own funerals makers space

Billie Robertson, Kim Ligers' first coffin-making student, works on her coffin.

The opportunity for customisation is another reason. A recent club member, a young father with early-onset dementia, built his coffin to look like a viking boat, with horns on one side and a rudder on the other. 

There's scope to be creative when making your own coffin, as long as it meets a few simple legal requirements. 

"It needs to be impervious and it needs to be robust," Lynne says. "But that would be common sense, as well – you don't want anybody falling out of one, do you?"

A crematorium manager can also refuse to accept a coffin if they think it's likely to damage their equipment or threaten public health or safety. In the ACT, coffins mustn't have any metal parts, and for cremations in Victoria, they need to have a flat base.

Natural burial

The green funeral movement has been growing since Australia's first cemetery section dedicated to natural burial opened more than a decade ago. Natural burial is the practice of placing remains, without embalming them, in a biodegradable coffin or shroud and burying it at the shallowest legal depth to encourage natural decomposition, with minimal marking of the grave so that plants can grow unimpeded. 

However, with the exception of Upright Burials in Victoria's southwest, all natural burial grounds in Australia have formed part of, and help fund, high-maintenance cemeteries with manicured lawns. 

As for other environmentally sustainable options, there are methods of liquifying or freeze-drying human remains (more eco-friendly alternatives to burning) or otherwise converting them – by way of machinery or chemicals or both – into fertiliser. 

The ‘mad-scientist’ trend of body disposal innovations doesn’t appeal to everyone – least of all Kevin Hartley, who champions a more sentimental, laid-to-rest kind of farewell. The former funeral director and memorial park manager has embarked on a project to “put genuine, respectful, meaningful burial back on the menu” for families who can’t afford the cemetery fees. 

Kevin’s project has been four years in the making, with half-a-million-dollars worth of paid and pro-bono work from 15 parties, including a law firm, development consultants, mapping companies and environmental groups. 

The goal? Simple, natural burial offered at the cost of a cremation.

Funerals part 4 Kev Jane Kasran 3

Kevin Hartley with Jane Pickard at her Saumarez Ponds property, where they hope to establish a natural burial ground. Photograph: Patsy Asch/Sustainable Living Armidale

According to Kevin, there are "massive amounts of land" on Australia's peri-urban fringes "that councils and environmental groups look at and go: we'd better revegetate this land". It's these sites – bare, unused – that Kevin wants to see transformed through natural burial and populated with native wildlife.

Uralla Shire Council is currently considering his submission to turn 1.5 hectares of farmland at Saumarez Ponds, west of Armidale, NSW, into a natural burial ground. Kevin and his team are also assessing whether a 12-hectare site west of Melbourne is a geologically sound spot in which to bury the dead.

His previous attempts to set up natural burial grounds were unsuccessful because he wasn't able to secure land. Shifting to a nonprofit model turbocharged the project, leading to numerous offers of land, plants to go on top, and free professional services.

Price comparison websites

For many who are recently bereaved, calling a funeral parlour is just another checkbox on an overwhelming to-do list – something to fit in after a doctor certifies the cause of death, but before notifying all the organisations the deceased had dealings with in life.

According to our survey of 548 people who recently organised a funeral, the most common way of choosing a funeral director is using one nearby, and accepting the recommendation of a family member, friend, or staff at the hospital or nursing home.

You're then "very much in the funeral director's hands,'' says Colin Wong, founder of funeral price comparison website, Gathered Here. "They can tell you what you need, how things work, how much things cost."

Our investigation into the funeral industry has revealed that those costs are usually excessive and opaque, with varying degrees of itemisation. Many funeral firms are also reluctant to discuss, over the phone, ways to reduce costs  and some push callers to meet in person for more details.

You're very much in the funeral director's hands. They can tell you what you need, how things work, how much things cost

Colin Wong, founder of funeral price comparison website Gathered Here

Gathered Here says it's out to upend this culture of secrecy by compiling prices from hundreds of funeral homes and publishing them online. It has also used that data to create a range of guides on topics including coffin prices and cheap funerals, which give overviews of costs by city or product type. Individual listings of funeral homes aren't as illuminating, as many log state-average prices for most items. 

As with comparison sites for energy, insurance and finance, a "free" service such as Gathered Here is unlikely to give you the full picture, listing only a portion of the market. And because funeral homes, not consumers, fund the comparison site, you can see how Gathered Here might be financially compelled to keep its paying members happy. 

The company promotes itself as the bold disrupter, yet allows funeral homes to pay for premium listings without itemising their prices and, for a monthly fee, gives them exclusive access to quote requests and a position at the top of search results, among other perks. 

Community-led services

Since its inception in 2016, Tender Funerals in Wollongong, NSW, has earned a reputation for delivering a successful alternative to the profit-driven industry. Led by a local community determined to set up its own funeral service, it's not for profit and not as expensive as other funeral providers.

Its popularity in the Illawarra has given rise to Tender Funerals Australia, which lays out the practical blueprint for communities interested in taking up the Wollongong model. So far, there are six on board: Newcastle, NSW Mid North Coast, Cairns, Perth, Canberra and its surrounds, and northern Tasmania.

Founder Jenny Briscoe-Hough, now CEO of the new organisation, got her death care footing in Byron Bay, NSW, working with self-described "deathwalker" Zenith Virago. The idea behind "deathwalking", Zenith says, is to walk with the dying person or the bereaved family in a supporting role, rather than taking over the proceedings.

That means ensuring that they "know what their options are, what their social and legal rights are… so that when the time comes to see a funeral director or arrange a ceremony themselves, they can make an informed, empowered decision", says Zenith. "It's an attempt to avoid regrets, so they don't later think: 'I wish I had done it that way, or I didn't know I could do that'."

funerals part 4 tender funeral

Friends of a Wollongong teacher painted his coffin for a service organised with Tender Funerals.

Tender Funerals is grounded in those threads of experience, and lays bare aspects of the funeral process usually concealed from us: the specific ways you can prepare a body, or the placing of the lid on the coffin.

"There's a trend towards more people coming into the mortuary, doing wash and dress, creating their own ceremony," Jenny says. "And always, they say they feel better because they know what's happened and they've done everything they can for that person." 

She says a funeral doesn't need to have one person talking at the front. "A ceremony could be anything," she says. "It could be like a feast or huge dinner party with the coffin there."

The average Tender funeral, with cremation, costs between $3000 and $4000 – about half the price of funerals with similar inclusions in the area.

Ordering a cremation online

With the polished earnestness expected of funeral providers, Bare Cremation conveys a message of pragmatism wrapped in care: if you want to arrange a cremation – a respectful cremation – you don't need to shape a ceremony around it, and you don't need to visit a funeral home. You can just fill in an online form and wait for a call. 

The business name refers to direct cremation, which means no service and no attendance. It's the cheapest option after a death. Bare Cremation's website claims that organising one online will allow you to "arrange a much more personalised service without the time and cost pressure of a traditional funeral home", based on the premise that a body isn't needed for paying tribute to the deceased.

It also promises affordability, with starting prices in each state ranging between $1400 and $3000. In our mystery shop of funeral homes, businesses that offered quotes for direct cremation charged between $2400 and $5600.

Bare Cremation is a streamlined operation: they receive your order, collect the body, cremate the body, and deliver the ashes – by post, if you choose. The cremation takes place within days of the death and without a viewing beforehand, and might appeal to mourners who want the body dealt with swiftly.

(Update November 2021: Bare Cremation paid a $13,320 penalty in early November 2021 following an ACCC investigation that found it had made false and misleading representations about the prices of its cremation services. The regulator found that in April 2021 the company advertised prices on its website that were only available in one of the 17 regions it operates in. The prices in other regions were higher.)

Cutting out the funeral director

Early in its pilot phase, the founders of funeral startup Picaluna noticed that almost half of the mourners it organised funerals for were being referred by celebrants, whose role it is to put together and perform the ceremony. Over the next three years, they focused on recruiting scores of disaffected funeral celebrants to their cloud-based platform. 

A funeral parlour without the parlour, Picaluna now has a network of about 50 celebrants based in the greater Sydney area. Its software helps celebrants take on the overall management of a funeral – usually the domain of funeral directors – guiding them through registering the death and sourcing a mortuary, a coffin, a cemetery or crematorium, and any extras.

Unlike funeral homes, Picaluna doesn't mark up particular items, such as the coffin. Instead, it bills at wholesale prices and charges a 35% service fee on top of the total.

To celebrants, the startup offers an appealing corrective to their current dependence on funeral directors for getting work, and the enduring influence this has on the way we do funerals in Australia. Greg Inglis, Picaluna's managing director, says celebrants inherit a "cookie-cutter funeral service" from funeral directors in the traditional industry. "Celebrants don't have creative input, and they are creative people, they want to," he says.

One former employee of InvoCare, Australia's largest funeral company, says he's seen many funerals that don't seem to reflect the person their meant to honour. He believes it comes down to the industry being "based on numbers: get 'em in, get 'em out. Roll 'em over, it's money".

He quit the company and worked as a self-employed celebrant, taking the time, he says, to make each service feel true to the person who had died. He joined Picaluna because he felt supported by them in this work, including financially. Celebrants usually get paid around $400, and are paid upwards of $800 by Picaluna for devising and conducting a service. They get $1100 more if they also arrange the other aspects of the funeral.

When the funeral directors he'd worked with found out, they gave him an ultimatum: remove yourself from Picaluna or you'll get no more work from us. One of them left an abusive message on his phone: "You're a celebrant, not a f---ing funeral director."

InvoCare, whose reach extends to New Zealand and Singapore, sees the startup as a real threat, along with any new offerings in the funerals space. For big funeral companies, departures from the model that's become lucrative for them don't herald a visionary future, but a threat to their bottom line.

Lead image: St Anthony's Choir sing 'You Raise Me Up' to their deceased friend at her funeral in Coogee, NSW, organised through Picaluna.

This is one of four instalments in our funerals investigation. You can also read 

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.